We start getting too much rain. Nothing for a long time so the ground dries and cracks in bare patches in the middle of the yard and looks like the bottoms of your feet. The grass thin and brittle. And then it starts raining. It starts on a Wednesday and it just comes. Slow at first and then harder. It’s great for the first day, you feel it leaking into the ground, making everything better. A drink. And then another.
Deen looks out the back bedroom window, the wall of windows that looks out over the yard, the trees, the creek. Sweet fucking God, she says as it starts, the rain like diagonal stripes. Because this is what I need, she says.
But it is. It’s just what we need.
Deen left her husband, Russ, after ten years. Before Russ, she was single for a long time. Single and dating. Badly. Russ, she married after four good dates. He took her to a baseball game. My sister hates baseball. But for this guy, she went. They were married for ten years with no kids and Deen came home after work one day and found tapes tucked into a ceiling tile in the basement. They were marked All My Children, which were tapes she’d had from college, old tapes of old shows. She took them down and played them. He’d taped over her old soaps with porn. Worse, they were tapes of Russ and other girls. Old ones, she knew, because his tattoo wasn’t there, an eagle on his left bicep, which he got after he met Deen. Still. He was home every day while Deen worked. He was supposed to be looking for work, but instead he was home, watching himself fuck other girls.
She lost that job, the job she was coming home from. It was a paper box company, not corrugated but hard paper board, package design for things like electronics and cell phones. They all showed up at work at seven am, the same as always, but the door was bolted. Seventeen workers, desk jobs, press handlers, guys who ran the die cut machine, the old ladies who did the billing and the wrote up orders on carbon forms. Out of work.
So there’s Deen, looking out my back bedroom window at the rain coming in from the west over the creek in diagonal stripes, like moving fabric on a polyester dress, watching the water drink right into the ground. Out of a job, out of a husband. And in my house. That’s where that came from.
I can’t sleep well. Deen snores. We sleep together in that back bedroom in the king size bed like we did when we were kids and went to stay at our Grandpa’s in Pennsylvania. A valley of space between us, lying without touching. I get up. I go into the kitchen. Make coffee and make paintings with coffee. Not the hot coffee but whatever was left over. It stains the paper and I drag the brush and make faces, houses, flowers. I hang them up at work, to sell. No one buys them even though they’re fifteen dollars. They buy the coffee. Even that they complain about.
Deen comes into the shop that Tuesday, before it starts raining. It’s still, feels like something heavy will come out of the sky soon, like an anvil in an old cartoon, just dropping on you. She comes in and she sits and she plays with the Chinese checkers board by herself. She complains. I tell her she can’t come to work with me anymore.
What crawled up your ass and died? she says.
You did, I say. Now go home.
We sleep in that back bedroom together because no one goes upstairs. Upstairs there are two more little bedrooms and a bathroom in between. One room, under the dormer, with a day bed and a white dresser from when we were kids, is floor to ceiling with Deen’s stuff. Not even boxes but black trashbags mostly. She moved in a hurry. Trash bags the most convenient way to go. The other room, closed off. A low room with paneling, and a desk made out of an old door. The last room where I sat with Dennis. We sat on either side of the desk, me at it, like I was writing. Dennis with the window behind his head, a halo of light around him, and his face, blotted out in shadow.
Aim, Deen says, You know no one’s going to buy these. She fingers a picture on the wall above the table where we keep the cream and sugar.
I know, I say. I wasn’t looking to turn a profit.
‘Cause it’s a stupid idea, she says. Coffee.
I’m so tired my limbs are buzzing. I lean back on the fridge where we keep the cream, the smoothie mix, the can of Redi Whip.
See you later, Deen says. Her feet are blue around the edges, hang over her flip flops in an uneven way, so the middles are worn flat, the sides like they haven’t been touched, never worn. I watch her feet walk out into the sun, the dust, the hot air like breathing inside a plastic bag. Still Tuesday.
Dennis’s eyes, his hair and his skin were all the same color. Olive, gold like he walked out of the sun. He had a scar on the plane between his right armpit and nipple from a lung collapse. Another on his knee from a bike accident. Highly arched feet. Small square hands. Lips you might kiss just to feel them under your own, for the way they blend into his face, for their softness, their smile, or like you might draw the pink right from them, lean in, and sip.
A woman I don’t know comes in to the shop and she asks for a latte, she asks about the drought, she asks about my husband.
Terrible, I agree with her.
The gentleman, she calls him, who worked here?
He passed away, I say.
Oh my goodness, she says, her hand, tanned and starting its first wrinkles, flat on her chest, also tanned, also wrinkling. How? she says, without thinking. He was so young.
He drowned, I say. A lie. But only partial. The creek, down to just rocks and a bare trickle.
My goodness, she says. He was your husband, she says.
When the rain comes, kids go out in the street. It’s warm still, and the pavement hot, the first shallow puddles like bathwater. You see them out there, stomping, laughing. One girl leans her head back, her mouth open. It goes on all over town, in the backyards, on sidewalks. The parents let it happen. For the first day anyway.
There are no children between us. For me, or for Deen. And Deen’s not exactly too old, but she is, kind of. She said to me one time, Your husband isn’t having any kids. I didn’t disagree with her, but she went on. You know why? she said. Cause you can’t get a faggot pregnant by fucking him in the ass, that’s why, she said. And I think about all that skin, all that surface between us, between me and Dennis. A dry flat plane, the lines you could ride your finger down, follow a path or a string of words. Maybe it would tell you something. Dennis.
He went home to die. To Virginia. He stayed with his sister. Now my sister stays with me. I didn’t go. His sister called me right before, and then I didn’t go. I didn’t go at all.
The gutters are off the back of the house. When it rains hard, the water falls straight down off the edge of the roof and pounds a line into the ground. The second day of the rain, it seeps from the ground, under the basement walls and it moves across the floor like it’s alive. A cell that moves from within, rolling with a dry edge right to a low spot in the middle of the basement floor. Deen goes down for laundry and then comes back up, a basket of only her things on her hip. She passes me in the kitchen and says, Water in the basement, and then goes on into the bedroom to fold.
In the middle of the worst of it, the angel comes to our door. I don’t have any other explanation for it. Just that.
The water rises. We unplug things in the basement, the washer, the dryer, the big freezer that came with the house, that the previous owners used for putting up vegetables and fruits. I wear flip flops down there, the water inches deep on most of the floor. Deen stands on the steps and points things out. There’s no longer a dry edge, just a moving sheet of water. It’s not even a stream under one part of the wall, but rather, like the whole wall leaks. The whole thing, saturated and giving way. I move some boxes to a higher shelf. Dennis’s things. Books. A tennis trophy. Some silver rimmed champagne glasses his mother gave us at the wedding. They’d been hers. I imagine she wants them back.
People stop going out. The kids are out at first and then it rains all night. The ends of driveways fill up. Low spots in lawns become big mud puddles. People run from the door to their cars. Cars swish when they go down Center Street. There is constant noise, the rain on the roof, the wet trail of cars and trucks on the pavement. No thunder. Just water and water and water.
The emergency broadcast system comes on. It used to scare me and Deen when we were kids, when it came on during Happy Days when we were home in the summer. That loud buzz. I’d cover my ears, creep under the dining room table. Our mother, sewing. She didn’t hear it over the drum of her machine. Deen would laugh at me. I’d go under the table when the meter man came too. It scared me to have a man in the house.
It says we should seek higher ground. We have the TV on in the back bedroom, the screen small against the windows, against the rain out back. The house is a good eighteen feet above the creek. The lawn, sloping down to the bank. Deen eats popcorn on her side of the bed.
What’s higher than this? Deen says.
The college, I say.
I’m not going up there, Deen says.
We are in flood plain A. FEMA designated. As if that helps. Our street goes by on the news ticker. Evacuate to higher ground.
Fuck ‘em, Deen says. Carl says Center Street hasn’t flooded in a hundred years, she says.
It’s high time, I say. But what I think about is the water, coming up in the basement, up the yard, the water rising in the creek, the way it starts at the bottom of something, seeps in, works upward, climbing a wick. I think about Dennis’s lungs, starting at the bottom, filling up, soaking up like a sponge, about the rattle of water in his chest. The space between breaths.
What are we supposed to do? Deen says. I watch her feet on the open wooden stairs that go into the basement. She stands on the top of five, because the bottom three are covered. You can’t run a shop vac down there. You’d electrocute yourself.
The water is high enough that it creeps into the open door on the front loading washing machine. Stuff floats. An old shoe. Lint from the dryer, on top of the water like a skim. It smells dank, like wet stone, and dirt, and people all mixed together.
I think about leaving. We probably should leave, although at this point, we’d have to walk. Few cars come down Center Street. Tall trucks. Even the Jeeps have a hard time getting through. And like all things, I kind of want to see how bad it gets before I bail.
So we watch. We sit on the bed with the TV on mute and we watch those giant windows off the back of the house. They glaze and grease over with pollen and dirt and so much rain pounding against them. A few days ago you couldn’t see the creek down there, only hear it at night, when the street was quiet, if the water was high enough to rush through the rocks in the bed. Now you can see the edges of it on our lawn. Lilacs like water plants, halfway covered, the willows even, with their low limbs floating like hair in the water. We watch ducks come and land, flow with the current from the back of the yard, closer to the street, then get up and fly back to wear they started, to make the ride again. In the morning, there are deer out there, up to their knees in the water, picking their legs high, looking for low leaves to eat. By afternoon, a neighbor’s cow has wandered over. Her own pasture, too low and completely submerged. One lone cow, wading her way up through our yard, a long slow lumber. We watch it like it’s unreal. It is unreal. She keeps coming closer.
What the hell is that cow doing? Deen says, her voice high pitched. I can’t tell if she’s laughing, or hysterical. We eat turkey sandwiches, still on the bed.
I don’t know, I say. You can see her face out there, her ears plastered flat, and her mouth open. She must be lowing. She’s looking right at us.
Should we let her in? Deen says. We laugh for a long time about that.
No one came to our wedding. Dennis and I married in a vineyard, by ourselves, by one of Dennis’s friends, Jackson, who was an ordained healer. At the time, no one saw the irony in that. My family was just my mother and Deen. We were like three strangers, three single women getting out of each other’s way. Dennis didn’t tell his parents until afterward. Why? I’d said. Oh, he said. They’d never believe in you, he’d said. He smiled in the sunlight. There were tiny black grapes all around us, bigger green grapes that were so light they were gold. Fields of long grass, yellowed and frayed in the heat. I was in sandals. Dennis in linen. It took ten minutes and then we bought our friend a bottle of Reisling, sat where you could see the lake down below, the grass there, green and shaded til it hit the water, the hill one you could roll down. After the bottle of Reisling, they took off through the grass, Dennis and Jackson, shedding clothing. Dennis’s shoes, camel leather mocs, kicked up, yards apart. His linen shirt, snagged on a low branch. They cannonballed into the water, both of them naked. Jackson, howling with laughter. Dennis floated, belly up in the sun. The light, like diamonds all around him.
The sound of the fire house is constant now. The dark moan that comes from the tower, signalling another emergency, another call. Don’t they have some better way to contact the fireman? Deen asks. Cell phones? she says. That thing is the equivalent of yelling.
It goes on all day, and all night. In the night, you hear every third call maybe. You get used to it, and miss the ones in between. It’s just extra breathing in the house, in the town, the creeping sad sigh that moves through the streets, telling you to get out of the way.
It scared me when our grandfather died and our mother told me that he wasn’t gone, that he was watching us. I was afraid to do anything after that. I imagined him at the ceiling in every room, perched on doorways or bookshelves, or worst, just floating above, watching. He had a glass eye, which made this worse. I thought maybe I would see just the eye, because while the rest of you might evaporate and go to heaven, the eye wouldn’t, because it wasn’t human.
When Dennis died I thought the same thing. I thought of him hovering, of him in every room, watching me cook, watching me sleep. I knew that if I’d been able to watch him, sleeping, wherever it was he was sleeping, he might not be dead. I might have stopped that from happening. But probably not.
And then when the angel came to our door, I realized that isn’t what happens at all.
His name is Tom. He rings the doorbell close to midnight, when Deen and I are watching TV. It’s after the news even, after all the warnings about not driving into unknown depths. Turn around, it says, Don’t drown. They show a tree, up to its armpits in water.
Our porch light is on. Beyond the porch, it rains sideways. He is in white, and he is drenched through. I can see his nipples and the hair on his stomach through his buttoned up shirt. He has a mess of dreadlocks pulled into a long pony tail. They are the color of damp sand, ashy blond. At the roots, at his forehead, the hair is normal, curly, pulled away from his face, which is fine like china and beautiful.
The porch floor is wet, and running into the grass. Through the screen even, the rain reaches me in a mist. I would ask him if he needs help, but it’s clear. I let him in, and grab him a towel. There’s no car out front.
He stands on the braided rug inside the door and waits. He’s in rolled up khakis and flip flops, his feet, running with water. He’s about as big around as one of Deen’s legs. His wristbones, like knobs sticking out of the base of his hands. I wrap the towel around his shoulders, tell him he should get undressed.
Thank you, he says.
Aimee, I say.
Tom, he says. He nods.
The man, I say, dry in my throat, my mouth suddenly, who lived here. He doesn’t, anymore. Dennis, I say.
I know, Tom says. He shivers. And then Deen comes out, she rumbles into the room to get a drink from the fridge. She sees us in the doorway, under the hall light, shining down on Tom’s wet head.
You have got yourself a fucking problem, she says to me.
It seems odd to offer a bath to a man who comes in soaking wet, but it’s what I do. Deen and I use the master bath, the one in the back bedroom which has a shower stall, but I take Tom upstairs to the hall bath, and I fill the tub with hot water, with bubbles even that smell like vanilla. I take his wet clothes and wring them in the sink. I would dry them, but the dryer is submerged, shorted out, the drum half-filled with water.
I sit on the closed toilet. I have some of Dennis’s clothes, I say.
I would like that, he says. He leans back, his hair wrapped in a towel the way a woman would wear it. He is not womanly though. Just a sliver of masculinity, a new moon, dipped in my tub.
I take out a blanket, a quilt that Dennis’s mother made from his sisters’ dresses. It’s pieces of velvet, reds and greens and blues, even black. He had three sisters. She put this quilt together for Christmas one year. Dennis just loved those dresses, she said. It covers the floor in the shadow of the desk that we made from the door. The window beyond it, dark, striped with rain.
Tom comes out, dry, smelling like sugar cookies, his hair even, spiced and squeezed of all the water. I have a t-shirt for him, one of Dennis’s favorites, with a cabbage on it, and the words Erieville Farmers Market. Drawstring linen pants that he can cinch around his small waist. He leaves them on the chair. Lies down on the blanket. I know what it feels like. It feels like milk under your skin. A pelt you cannot stop touching. I sit on my knees beside him and he puts one arm under his head, one hand on my thigh, tucked into the space between.
There’s just the light from the hallway. It cuts across his middle and leaves his face in the shadow. Behind him, a shelf of books. Art books. Poetry books. Mine and Dennis’s together.
He pushes up, and brings his face into the light. His eyes are the color of glass. I kiss him. Dry at first, and then opening up. I’m afraid that touching him will make him disappear. That he will turn to dust beneath my lips. A cloud.
We sit like that, our foreheads together. I hear the staccato shots of Deen making popcorn downstairs. The smell, heavy with butter and the fan of the microwave. I shut the door with my foot and we sit with only the light from the window, the street light in front of the house.
We kiss again, and more. We lie down on the velvet blanket. I feel like the ground must, flooded. Like how you feel when what you thought was safe for a hundred years rises, and saturates you.
I open my eyes and he is still there, solid.
I loved him so much, I say to the angel.
I know, he says, long, like breathing.
When he still lived at home, I drew pictures of Dennis. He had a picture that he loved, of John Keats, sleeping before he died. When he showed it to me I was uninterested. I wanted his body. I wanted to get the shape, the heft, the color of it on paper. I didn’t want poetry. But he showed me the book, the pencil drawing of Keats’s face, drawn by his friend who sat by him and watched him die. Keats’s lungs, eaten away inside his chest. Dennis’s chest, filling with water. The face in the drawing, tilted to the side, sleeping, soft, quiet to what rages beneath it.
So I drew him when he was sleeping. He slept on the old couch in the living room, under the window facing the street. I waited for the light to change, drew more. When he left, I kept them all. I thought to send them to his mother, to his sisters, for them to keep his face, the way I had seen it last, sleeping with the sunlight across his brow. But I kept them. I tucked them into the bookshelves, in between the books. Dennis, Dennis, Dennis.
His face is gone from this world, not even buried, but burned, completely incinerated, a substance you can no longer hold, but that will just fly away out of your hands if you touch it or even breathe on it.
I think about what you keep, of anyone, of what stays behind, of ghosts in the corners of rooms, watching you. And realize that you burst into light. That you die and you burst into angels that come to you in many places, fleshy places, whole and something you can touch. Something that comes to your door in the middle of the night, wet and familiar. That we meet again and again in the strangest and most known places of all.
In the morning, thunder. A front rolls in which maybe will make it better, but not yet. I get up in the dark because it’s still dark after eight o’clock, and go down to find Deen and Tom on the front porch with cups of coffee. They sit with their feet up on the rails, their toes getting wet. It rains straight down instead of sideways. At least it’s different.
A neighbor from way down Center Street comes down in a canoe. He has his dog in the back, a barrel chested yellow lab who looks out the back of the boat like he will jump any time. The neighbor, whose name I don’t know, I just think of him as the guy with the big lab, wears a green rain parka and floppy hat. He paddles.
Do you need anything? he calls out.
I settle in a chair between them, my own cup of coffee hot in my hands. No, I yell back. Thanks.
He waves. Tom laughs, and waves back. We all sit there, the world different, elementally different than it was four days ago, and the rain on the roof is deafening.
Jennifer Pashley is the author of States, a collection of short fiction. Her stories have appeared in Mississippi Review, PANK, SmokeLong Quarterly and Swink, among others. She is currently worrying a novel, and teaching creative writing part time at Syracuse University.